Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whereas I make an attempt at long-form writing and, quite literally, come up short


1,500 words. None of them too great. This is my first time writing something remotely creative since, oh, high school, so any criticism is very very much so welcome. Let it be known that I haven't even edited this sucker.

I should start my Sarajevo story with how it ended. On the flight back to Istanbul when 7:53 Sarajevo time hits. I smell Bosnak Borek. Not the timid, limpid kind you get at Simit Sarayi that needs a few healthy lacings of sumac, but the spicy, snappy Sarajevski variety. Ripe with fennel and pepper, tasting more like Italian sausage than kiyma. It’s Iftar time at ~10,000 meters. Come ye brothers and enjoy our meat.
I spend a lot of time in Istanbul mocking the “East v. West” tropes. The same trope exists in Sarajevo, sure, and it’s just as tired. It’s like Samuel Huntington somehow mindwormed into all of us and convinced the world of its own polarity. The world is shades of grey, and all the more wonderful for it. When I was fresh out of high-school, I remember running into a man who, looking back on it, couldn’t be much older than my current twenty-three. He was out hiking where I was hiking, taking some time to cool his mind after a friend committed suicide. He wasn’t there to lecture, of course, but he said something that stuck in my mind. The guy warned me off of any form of extremism. Apparently nobody told Doc Huntington. And I don’t mean this to be wistful and preachy, I mean this to say that describing Sarajevo as any sort of dichotomy gets you wrong from the start. There’s more to these places then who has planted their flag there. There’s more to Sarajevo them bombs, tunnels, and roses.
There is Ottoman stuff. The stuff I can’t live without. Learn about Gazi Husrev Bey by wandering his mosque and medrese. The mosque is a ways away from the imperial masonry of Istanbul, Edirne, or Bursa. There is as much woodwork as stonecutting and as much enamel as pearl. There are a few mosques and other such religious buildings in and around the old city, Bascarcija. The scale is far more human and there is certainly a vernacular touch to all of it. And unlike some of the bigger Turkish sites, the Ottomanica in Bosnia is a bit more alive. The old houses have laundry hanging from them, not menus. The mosques are inhabited by old dudes with beards, not young blondes with Leicas. A tremendous amount of money has come from the Gulf and from Turkey to rehabilitate the Ottoman buildings and create a more vibrant Islamic life in Sarajevo. A lot of this could be construed a bit suspiciously, and I will say that I was a bit stranged out by the green flags and Shahadah on a black flag. The latter is typically used to symbolize an Islamic outpost in the Dar al-Harb. Seeing it in a tourist mosque in Muslim Sarajevo was a bit strong. But the newly-minted medrese within the Ottoman Gazi Husrev Bay Medrese compound was tastefully executed and shiny as all-get out. They even humored me with Turkish. And it should go without saying (but it won’t) that the Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish buildings were all well-maintained and well-mapped. The New Synagogue, from c. 1904, was as loud-and-proud as I’ve seen a synagogue outside Israel. The new Orthodox Church was right on the main square and flanked by a group of men commenting on two of their kind’s match on one of those comically-oversized chessboards. You couldn’t ask for a more heavy-handed picturesque of Eastern Europe.
There is food and drink. I could detect hops in the beer, a far cry from the Natural Light masquerading as Efes in Turkey. There’s widespread and cheap espresso. I’m no coffee drinker, but I was informed by my Bosnian agent that what one does in Sarajevo is sit in a café on Ferhadija and drink espresso. So I did. It was better than it sounds, and just as pretentious. The food was meat-and-dairy, but I’m young and brash enough to have no problems with that. Zeljo in Bascarsija was the place to go for cevapi – sizzling kofte in oven-fresh bread, covered with kajmak (not kaymak) and served with a side of “hell yes!” Simple grills, done well, will never steer you wrong. There are a few variations on the meat-and-bread sort of thing, and I suppose one could get sick of it on a longer stay. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sopska salata when I had it. It’s your standard cucumber-tomato-onion-pepper sort of salad, but occasionally topped with an absurdist dollop of sour cream. It’s as good as the ingredients are fresh, and they were plenty so in my case. I’ve already discussed the burek and don’t need to go further. Cevapi, though, is really the start of the show. I like to assume that it comes from the Turkish cevap, or answer. As in, if someone asks you a tough question, you just answer by handing them cevapi. I wrote a thesis-y thing on Balkan foods, and I think cevapi was the answer to that, too.
There’s nature. The Miljacka really isn’t it, it’s too wimpy to be considered much of anything. But if you wander to the far side of town from Basarcija, you get to Vrelo Bosne, the spring of the Bosne river. It’s kinda bucolic vernal paradise. Also highly recommended, particularly in the summer, when the weather is cold and the patio restaurant serves a mean desert that’s basically just apple pie filling covered with ice cream. Once you get past the children playing and the dogs chasing frenetically after ducks, Vrelo Bosne is quite peaceful. I caught a nice hour-long catnap in the shade of a linden, and if anyone thought I was a drifter, they were at least nice enough to keep it to themselves.
There is history. I won’t bore you with the Ottoman stuff, and honestly, the museums won’t either. The whole Ottoman thing is treated more as an occupying force than 300 years of history. But the modern history museum confronts the Balkan wars unflinchingly and evocatively. What struck me the most was a sign marking “Uniform of a Sarajevan Militia Member” to a vest, jeans, and a pair of Adidas. If Mladic tried to argue that there were no innocents in Sarajevo, there were certainly no professionals, either. The fighters – on both sides, it should be mentioned – were far more “dudes with guns” than anything resembling the Yugoslav Army of 5 years prior. There’s not as much Tito worship as I expected, I regret to say. There is, however, a Tito Café that has “SMRT FACIZMU” banners. And another museum that was a bit negative on the whole Cetniks thing. So it’s not as if the Time of Josip Broz was entirely forgotten. Just lost in its own aftermath, I suppose. But the museums are cool. As long as you don’t have your heart set on looking at the actual Sarajevo Haggadah, not just an interactive computer demonstration of the Sarajevo Haggadah, because the real thing cannot be sullied by non-diplomatsonphotoops eyes. But at the same museum, there’s awesome natural history on display, including raging taxedermied otters.
There are mountains. I mean, people from Colorado would probably call them hills, but I was duly impressed. Sarajevo is, compared to my expectations, pretty small; only ~300,000 or so people live in a valley carved by the sputtering Miljacka. And above the valley are steep-enough rises that give a view of the whole settlement. The guide books warn sternly that irregulars of the Republika Srpska used these hills to rain down mortar fire on the town, writing about it half-gawking and half-tutting. But the pines are odiferous and the views are spectacular, even if the steadily eroding gun emplacements are more than a bit unsettling. I was convinced I would hike to the top of one of the mountains before realizing that, my God, I have a flight to catch. I was still able to grab lunch at some chalet about 2/3 the way up. There are hiking paths and guest houses abound up there, I’m optimistic I’ll return and conquer.
And if I conquered, well, I’d hardly be the first. Calling Bosnia a “Crossroads of Empires” is probably not as accurate as “a relatively low-lying place that stands between geographical chokeholds (hi, Poland!), but it still gets said anyways. Bosnia’s got its own thing going on, for sure. There’s certainly lots of influences from all sorts of places, but it’s still…Bosnia. And Herzegovina. They even have their own coat of arms and anything.
It’s a real place, not just the projection of Huntingtonists and their ilk. Real people live there, and they’re more interested, I would imagine, in hanging out with friends and falling in love and that sort of thing then serving some sort of post-imperialist vision. Let it go, learn about the place for what it is, not for how it may or may not represent your views of what you want it to be. I’m not a Balkanologist. I’m no Mazower. But I’m no Robert D. Kaplan either. Sarajevo isn’t the epicenter of this Medievalized European concept. It’s just a place. A pretty place, if I may say so myself. One worth checking out sometime.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

He's got real estate that's better than that

Some of my first writing that I actually still find readable was my first few views on Georgia. I still love the place, and I still recommend everyone visit it. And now, apparently, Sakashvili wants to make it at lot easier for you.

These two stories aren't at all unrelated. On one hand, Trump is buying real estate in Tblisi and Misha is opening up the Black Sea coast for tremendous new development. On the other, Georgia turns to English as its secondary language, away from Russian. The second is pretty straightforward. And yeah, I predicted it, but it wasn't like it was that difficult to discover. Columbia-educated Sakashvili has been turning towards the US for nearly two decades. This was more a formality than anything else...though I'd be interested to hear how far-ranging the decree is. Will students away from Tblisi be doing English as well? I really don't know how far their reach is.

The development bit is more interesting. Some of the stuff sounds really, really, dangerous. To wit:
Specifically, the government is offering hotel developers 27 plots on 11.3 hectares of undeveloped, state-owned Black Sea-area land for $1 per plot. Under the program, overseen by the Autonomous Republic of Achara, any investor willing to invest at least two million lari (approximately $1.1 million) in a beachfront hotel zone will qualify for an array of business incentives, including free utilities and no sales or income tax for 15 years.
To qualify for the tax holiday, participating hotel projects – each having a requirement that a building cannot be taller than seven stories -- must be completed by August 1, 2011. 
So yeah, that's not what I would call safe, planned, development. In fact, I would bet that means shoddy construction, cheap labor, and all sorts of cut corners. And lots of money going back to Tblisi and New York more than anything else. Bascially, the ugliest points of tourism. God help us all when the developers discover the mountains. There is a back-pat about it, the whole "but no trees can be taken down" but lets be serious. This is going to be a tremendous renewal project. And I'm not optimistic that it will be done well. There's too much room for corruption and graft. Too much of an excuse for Americans to talk about "helping Georgians" and not giving a damn which ones they help. Lots of rich, connected, Georgians will benefit. Lots of poor Georgians will be disillusioned. Sakashvili is smarter than me, so maybe he knows what he's doing here. But as I said, I'm pessimistic. I'd hate to see the country piss away its natural beauty to get 15 dudes a few more million.

 And finally, there's separatism in the North Caucasus. You probably knew this already, and you probably knew that Russia thinks that Georgians, Americans, Saudis, and everyone besides Chechens are to blame. It's a well-written article. So for those of you that are complaining that this isn't a navel-gazing travel blog, and those of you that have no clue what I'm talking about when I go full-Kavkaz, read Vatchagaev's piece. It's pretty danged good.

So yeah, I owe a report on Sarajevo, and I'll get to that eventually. I'm trying to do long-form, but that's just totally not happening so far what with work and all. So I'll let you know how that goes.

Read about the Caucasus until then.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Call me Causobon because I make things up

When Taches d'Heiule is quoting DFW, things have gotten weird on the internet. And since the internet happened, we can really write whatever we want to on it. So in the interest of saying whatever I want, I'll run through a DFW-style thought experiment, and one that flies in direct opposition to what I said in my last post.

Instead of talking about the future of Islamicism, what if the entire concept of Islamicism didn't really exist? What if, because it is so difficult to really define a movement that is so disorganized and de-centralized, we can see if the movement exists at all? If its not, instead, a teleological explanation of numerous different disparate movements?

I'm not just saying stuff to be all Hipsterrunoff, I swear. The main crux of my argument is that Islamic governments and movements don't help each other out without a good reason. Kosovo, for all of it being the Muslim Outpost in Europe that all Muslims are supposed to want, has gotten very little aid - or even recognition, from other Muslim countries. Kashgar, a metropolis in Xinjiang/East Turkestan, the Far East of Islam, has been similarly ignored. Simply put, the sort of people who are big on the world stage don't want to upset Russia or China unless they absolutely have to. Growing the Caliphate and sticking the white flag all over does not qualify as worth it.

And on the same point, the folks that do want to stick it to Russia have no problem supporting political Islam in one way or another. Definitely-not-Muslim Poland recently sorta-arrested-but-then-didn't a Chechen separatist. And there's a wikipedia list of places that are named after Dzhokar Dudayev. Guess where they are.

Islam as a political movement is, of course, complicated. The whole uncited mess that is "Iran donates to AKP's Campaign" makes little sense from an economic standpoint ($25,000,000? For what?), from a diplomatic standpoint (why are only un-named Foreign Service officials the ones talking about it?), and also from a Islamic-axis standpoint (why is a Twelver supporting Sunni orthodoxy?). If true, it only makes sense from a political standpoint, that is, Iran is supporting their neighbor and trading partner. Religion, honestly, doesn't apply. If its true.

Islamic Finance has fascinated me for a while now. It is presented as not just a morally superior way to bank, but also a corruption-free way to bank. Which is, of course, awfully nice but may not always be true. Corruption is as corruption does. Corrupt dudes (and chicks) live all over the world despite any purported religious leanings.

So on my quest for finding the underpinnings of Islamic Banking, I kept on running into the same answer. Islamic Finance, according to those who know, is a fig leaf. As one of those experts said:
...engagement with the [Islamic Banking] industry can only lead to one of two outcomes: (i) co-option and corruption if one remains engaged and perpetually engaged through incoherent justifications, or (ii) frustration, demoralization, and eventual disengagement. 
So they're just like any other bankers. Cretins. Jackals. Makes sense, actually.

This is where my train of thought leads. Purportedly Islamic actors still act for their own gain, not any particular Muslim leaning. They do what will help them gain/retain power (I mean politicians here, not Imams, Hafiz, or any other sort of legitimately religious person. Just politicians). Selling "their own" down the river is done just as often as, well, anyone else does. Window dressing may be different, but the underlying shittiness of politicians is the same.

And until someone can convince me otherwise, I'm going to go with the current understanding I have of Islamic finance. That its just an excuse for dudes who want a lot more money to do so under the name of Islam. Makes sense, actually. So I'm sure (and I welcome!) someone will correct me, yeah, this at least makes the argument cohesive.

If you believe all of the following, political Islam is a paper tiger. Sure, there may be some really bad dudes who use Islam as a rallying call, but that's hardly new news. And if political Islam is a paper tiger, then real, religious, Islam, is nothing to fear. And thus articles like Andy McCarthy's make no sense.

Terrorists get pointed at as terrorists solely because they fall under the scope of political Islam. Which is a logical fallacy if you subscribe that political Islam doesn't exist as a movement. And thus conversionaires who are doing their task to convert people to Islam aren't just creepy proselytizers, but instead nefarious masters-of-dark-arts who are destroying America. There's a whole entire diabolical conspiracy there that involves labelling any Others as, well, Others, that there's really a strong argument against existing.

And I should reiterate that I'm not completely convinced that everything I just wrote is true. It's much more of a Foucault's Pendulum assemblage of facts into something that looks like a coherent theory but may not be.

But its food for thought. Not saying that you should believe it, but saying that if you run into Andy McCarthy, you can say "well, but I read this thing once..." and have fun with it from there.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The way forward for Islamicism

Well, the referendum happened here. And now one could, I suppose, reasonably construct an argument that the government of Turkey is turning towards Islamicism. And when I say "reasonably construct" I mean make a thin argument, but not quite "Saudi Royal Family is Jewish" thin. But depending on who the new court appointees are, depending on the trajectory the Evren trial takes...yeah, things could be done in a way that it could arguably be construed as quite possibly something that smells like Islamicism. And even then, its not Islamicism as it is demonized in the US. Because Islamicism, in all of its shades, is no more constricting or structural a political ideology than, say, "Realism" or "Libertarianism"

And you will hear / have heard plenty of mischaracterizations of Islamicism if you're in the US. Which I mean, of course. There are too few Muslims and too many political points to be scored by vilifying the concept. And considering that the only people who really understand the concept are academics who wouldn't be caught dead running for office, you have a lot of misunderstandings. And I should note, I'm not one of these academics. I'm in professional school, and taking a break from that, for Christ's sake. So that's the US. What I think is neat is that you can run into people in Turkey, full of 70 million Muslims and run by a nominally Islamicist government who have no clue what Islamicism means. And you can run into people whose jobs it are to explain Turkey...who have no clue what they're talking about. I was mocked today for being idealistic and all, and perhaps my idealism is dying a slow, strangulated death. But come on people, this is on the internet. It ain't that hard.

So you can find any amount of hatred of Islam online. Really. Start with Martin Peretz and go from there. Or, yknow, just stick with Martin Peretz. But that's easy. And boring. So let's find stuff that shows how Islamicism works. How will I define Islamicism? Lets just say that its politics motivated by Muslim religion. State-building through your religion. Which happens to be Islam. To be fair, we can easily say that the Bush and Obama presidencies are definitely shaped by Christianity. So it would follow that Muslim countries, with Muslim leaders, may allow Islam to shape their leaderships.

And there are people who study this, believe you me. And they aren't necessary the people who live on bases and play hockey. And not to get Foustcu, but no, not you Matthew Hoh. I'd lean more to, y'know, a dude studying Islamic Law in application like Jeff Redding. Or maybe one day, even me ::bats eyelashes::.

 But to finally get to my point, looking at the world as a Muslim does not make you an extremist. At the most, it makes you human. And there is something that is easily forgotten by those of us within an incredibly rational albeit unintentionally hilarious court system...Islam is a rational religion and operates through a set of structured, if flexible, rules. It's a guideline for life, of course. Which is more than can be said for any sort of backwater oligarchy or kleptomaniac chaos.

So when you see reasonable arguments for installing a but more Islamic Law in the (Islamic Republic of, don't forget) Afghanistan, realize that it is not about "installing a system of law" but it is about codifying law that people are following anyways. The question of what type and kinds of law ISAF are going to allow is interesting, and is worth following. As is of course, most everything going on about Afghanistan. But just remember that unless whole entire education system is revamped in a matter the Soviets could not manage/stomach, its a matter of finding laws that fit the culture. And not in a gawking-at-silly-CAsians sort of way, but in a stupid-laws-get-broken way. The political system is screwy enough as is, even if it will change markedly after 2012 or so. But don't forget that a little bit of Diplomatic outrage can't solve too much. As Mr. Foust has so eloquently said before:
The crime here is not that a law is being passed to normalize a routine practice; it is that this was a routine practice and we chose not to care about it in the first place.
Tajikistan is not Afghanistan, of course. And Islamic Family Law is so so so much different than other courses of Islamic Law, so its tough to even really encompass it in the same blog post. But its my blog, so I can. Shari'a as it affects family disputes, simply, works. And it's not nearly as scary for women as it is sometimes construed to be. In fact, women tend to bring up divorce cases in Shari'a law because they actually get results, where as in civil law cases tend to disappear into the aether. Again, don't take my word on this, take Mr. Redding's. India is of course not Tajikistan, but its a whole lot easier to find information on, so you should check it out.

And Islamic Banking? Man, don't even get me started on Islamic Banking. After the whole catastrophic meltdown of the Afghanistan Central Bank, Islamic Banking sure looks mighty good o'er there. But, um, let us not forget. Islam is not a forcefield of perfect.

And to finally come back a bit closer to home. This article, about how the PKK is killing imams, makes no sense whatsoever. The PKK stopped killing Kurds way back in the '80s. Of course, since Apo has been imprisoned, the PKK as we knew it splintered. But I suppose the dead imams may not be Kurds. And I suppose one could make the argument that imams are being killed because they are representatives of the state (in Turkey, imams are selected and distributed by the State-run Dept. of Religious Affairs).

But it just doesn't make sense. It would make more sense, I think, that Zaman is just getting some knocks in at the PKK and pimping their Islamicist vibe. They need to talk about the plight of Believers in Turkey in order to appeal to their financing. But with the Fundamentalist funding that the PKK has received lately...they don't look too good killing imams. I don't know. It's weird. I don't get it, and there doesn't seem to be much evidence for it. I'm not calling for a look into conspiracy, y'know.

Post-Referendum, there's plenty of talk about Turkey "Turning Islam" to some sort of degree. But when you can talk about people killing imams in your country...yeah, probably not. And it's hardly like that's the only reason why not. But Turkey is hardly Afghanistan and Tajikistan.You probably don't need me to tell you that. But even the degree of Islamicism that the AKP adheres to is a completely different degree of a completely different flavor of Islam than in the above examples.

So I wrote this to give an offer of the flavors of Islamicism and Islamic law we're talking about. And as you can see, there really isn't a terrific thread weaving it all together. That's not solely the fault of my writing style, that's the fault of the "rising tide of ISLAM" theory as well. It's just too disjointed of a theory for that. You won't even see any Islamicist International like the old Communist Internationals of yore.

Well thought-out, properly-executed, careful application of Islamic practices to statecraft are really nothing to be afraid of. And when it's done with a goal in mind...it usually works. Sloppy yell-Islam isn't going to do anything good, of course, but any sort of sloppy ideology usually sucks. That's not new or only for Muslims.

Applied Islamicism is going to happen. There's just too much excitement in it, teeth-gnashing under Neo-Classical columns aside. So it doesn't seem to make sense to be afraid of it. Seems to make more sense to see what one can do to help it be done well. It'll take an awful lot of regional specialists, lawyers, architects, designers, and other some-such young professionals to do. And lets face it, we ain't getting employed otherwise.

Travel writing on Turkey in a single .gif

Pardon me while I fix myself into an apoplectic rage.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: Roads to Quoz by William Least-Heat Moon

Between moving 3 times in the same city, taking two trips out of country, and actually having a job, this one took a while to read. The fact that it weighs in at 608 pages didn't hurt, either. But what a 608 pages it was.


Roads to Quoz is about William Least-Heat Moon's travels around the U.S. It's really six different books in one, as he goes to the Pine Belt South, Southeast, Southwest, Northeast, Great Plains, and Mid-Atlantic. All the trips are different and are quite stand alone, and they are all a lot of fun together, as well. As much as I appreciate his missives about places I've been, like Columbus, OH or Baltimore, MD, I enjoy the exotic parts a bit more. And to be honest, I didn't enjoy the Baltimore bit at all. He enjoyed Baltimore way too much and didn't understand how bored and white-bread that city is. But maybe that's just me.

My favorite part, I suppose, was his writing on the Great Plains. He does a good job of showing just how alien and hostile to Yankee life it is. Which is also, of course, why its fantastic. And the stories he has from his time out there are some of the greatest stories I've heard.

So it's a fun book. It'd a good beach read / travel book and there are enough bits in it for everyone, from screeds against development to snippets of married life to stories about him growing up and trying to find a job as a young somethingorother. And to be honest, pretty inspiring, all in all. While reading it, I was more-than-a-little convinced to go back to the states and just...backpack. Hit the road. Something like that. I even hinted at such earlier in this space.

And now that its looking that I may stick around, after all, its nice to have wistful books about America. Or maybe not America as it is, but definitely America as I'd like it to be. Small-town. Mostly flat. Full of interesting people and stories. Toqueville's America is a good America, I have to say. One worth coming back to, at the least.

And in addition, here's a great interview with LHM. And, if you go down the left sidebar, its an interview with just about every other fantastic author as well.